Between Life and Death: Songs and Arias
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) ‘Komm, süßer Tod’ BWV 478 from Schemelli Liederbuch (1736) [4:13]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) ‘Urlicht’ from Symphony No. 2 (1888-1894) [4:42]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) ‘Schwanengesang’ D744 (?1822) [2:28]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud!’ from 12 Gedichte Op. 35 No. 2 (1840) [4:46]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) ‘Auflösung’ D807 (1824) [2:22]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) ‘Abendempfindung’ KV523 (1787) [4:41]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) ‘Feldeinsamkeit’ from 6 Lieder Op. 86 No. 2 (?1879) [3:25]; ‘Wie rafft’ ich mich auf’ from 9 Lieder und Gesänge Op. 32 No. 1 (1864) [3:40]
Carl LOEWE (1796-1869) ‘Edward’ from 3 Ballads Op. 1 No. 1 [4:44]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826) ‘Nein, länger trag’ ich nicht die Qualen’ and ‘Durch die Wälder durch die Auen’ from Der Freischütz (1821) [6:45]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) ‘Denk’ es, o Seele!’ from Mörike-Lieder No. 39 (1888) [2:41]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) ‘Der Jüngling und der Tod’ D545 (1817) [3:09]; ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ D531 (1817) [2:12]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) ‘Anakreons Grab’ from Goethe-Lieder No. 29 (1888) [2:38]; ‘Das Ständchen’ from Eichendorff-Lieder No. 4 (1888) [2:28]
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847) ‘Neue Liebe’ from 6 Lieder Op.19:4 (1833) [1:51]
Carl LOEWE (1796-1869) ‘Erlkönig’ from 3 Ballads Op. 1 No. 3 (1824) [3:26]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903) ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ from Spanisches Liederbuch: Weltliche Lieder No. 22 (1889) [2:29]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Lensky's Aria from Eugene Onegin Op. 24 (1877-1878) [5:28]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ from Schwanengesang D957 (1828) [5:01]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) ‘Revelge’ from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1898) [6:23]; ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ from Fünf Rückertlieder No. 4 (1901-1902) [6:59]
Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Michael Gees (piano)
rec. 14-17 November 2008, Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium. Song texts included
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72324 [41:50 + 44:47]

What a pleasure it is to see these discs encased in a smart, sturdy cardboard box, along with a chunky booklet. Clearly, Challenge Classics put a premium on presentation, and that includes opting for a high-res recording. A risky strategy, you might think, given that SACDs make up a small fraction of total disc sales, but perhaps that’s what we need in a business dominated by endless reissues and a dash to downsized downloads. The highly regarded tenor Christoph Prégardien continues this theme of quality with a well-chosen recital, spread - rather extravagantly - over two discs. He is joined by Michael Gees, theatre owner, composer, soloist and accompanist, who partnered him in an earlier Challenge recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (CC72292).

The recital begins - appropriately enough - with an invitation to death in Bach’s ‘Komm, süßer Tod’, which Prégardien sings with plenty of feeling and the loveliest of vocal lines. Gees’s Baroque embellishments are a delight too, both artists recorded in a warm, intimate acoustic. The CD and SACD layers are fabulous, the latter adding a burnished glow to the piano sound. In Mahler’s ‘Urlicht’ Prégardien’s ‘O Röschen rot’ is achingly beautiful - what extraordinary control of breath and phrase - Gees handling the song’s changing metre with aplomb. As for the existential musings of Schwanengesang - not the posthumous collection but the earlier song - Prégardien darkens his voice most effectively, yet brings real radiance to the closing lines.

What a promising start this is, Gees going on to make the most of Schumann’s burbling accompaniment in ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud!’, his partner light-toned and supple throughout. I particularly admire the cool elegance of Prégardien’s higher register, unmarked by any hint of beat or strain. But for a real sense of ecstasy Schubert’s ‘Auflösung’ (Dissolution) is rather special. Listening to Dame Janet Baker and Gerald Moore in this song (EMI 7243 5 69389 2) one is constantly reminded of Schubert’s instrumental and vocal genius, as indeed one is with Prégardien and Gees. The latter’s playing is every bit as fluent as Moore’s, Prégardien singing with barely suppressed joy and anticipation.

Evening has always been a powerful metaphor for life’s passing - Richard Strauss’s lovely setting of Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot comes to mind - and so it is with Mozart’s ‘Abendempfindung’. Once again I had to marvel at the naturalness of this recording, both in terms of overall sound and perspectives. Every nuance and shift of Prégardien’s finely calibrated singing is revealed here, Gees the most discreet of accompanists. The two richly hued Brahms settings are no less beguiling, and I’m delighted that this singer isn’t tempted to swoop and swoon in ‘Feldeinsamkeit’. The restless nocturnal wanderings of ‘Wie rafft’ ich mich auf’ call for a more declamatory style that can expose any steel or unsteadiness in the voice, but again Prégardien just breezes through.

The final items on the first disc include Schubert contemporary Carl Loewe’s setting of the rather grim little piece, ‘Edward’. The simple, folk-like melodies and larger-than-life vocal style are well managed, this cautionary tale told with all the relish these artists can muster. All credit to them for preparing such an imaginative and varied programme, each item a welcome contrast to what has gone before. And what better way to conclude than with Max’s recitative and aria from Der Freischütz? There is a wonderful internal contrast here, with bold writing that soon modulating between music of human warmth and supernatural chill. Gees makes the most of this spooky scene, the piano upfront but never overbearing. Prégardien seems to be enjoying himself too, although I do prefer it when he sings music that’s more inward and lyrical, as that shows how finely honed his voice really is, how alive he is to the subtleties of mood and characterisation.

Nowhere is the latter more evident than in Hugo Wolf’s ‘Denk’ es, o Seele!’ which opens disc two. The spare accompaniment underpins a bleak vocal part, Prégardien singing with admirable directness, his voice pared of all sentiment. But it’s the two Schubert settings, ‘Der Jüngling und der Tod’ and ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, that add a much more personal, intimate dimension to the poet’s dark musings. Prégardien is wonderfully poised, especially in the second song, Gees all but stealing the show with his lovely, pellucid playing. Moore has always seemed unassailable in this repertoire, but I’d say Gees is just as accomplished when it comes to natural, unaffected playing and a keen ear for Schubert’s subtle rhythms and melodic interplay.

Wolf’s ‘Anakreons Grab’ and ‘Das Ständchen’ are different again, pianist and singer at home with the dark harmonies of the graveside and the lighter, mercurial music of the serenade that follows. Mercurial is certainly an apt description for the little Mendelssohn piece, sung and played with great animation. As for Loewe’s earl king, most listeners will probably be more familiar with Schubert’s masterly setting of Goethe’s awful tale. True, Loewe can’t quite match the latter for sheer intensity and dramatic thrust, but Prégardien conveys the father’s mounting anxiety and the child’s distress most chillingly.

But then he really is an intelligent and resourceful vocalist, able to colour, shade and project his voice without resorting to irritating mannerisms or crude artifice. That said, I didn’t care for his Lensky, ardent though it is, simply because the vocal style is too lieder-like for my tastes. Of the two Mahler settings ‘Revelge’ is the one that always reminds me of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his classic EMI account of Des Knaben Wunderhorn with Szell and Schwarzkopf. Prégardien isn’t a baritone but what he lacks in heft he makes up for in the precision and perkiness of his delivery. Gees does a splendid job with the song’s trumpet sounds and martial rhythms; he is also most evocative in the quiet prelude to Mahler’s great ‘signature’ piece, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. At times Prégardien’s voice takes on a Pears-like lyricism, especially in those higher, more sustained passages. Deeply affecting, and a lovely coda to a most memorable collection.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard lieder singing of this quality. Add to that a first-rate recording, well-written liner notes and top-drawer presentation and you have a set that can easily take its place alongside the great collections both past and present. True, it may seem short measure - around 45 minutes per disc - but really it’s quality and not quantity that counts here. Indeed, if one were in the business of handing out stars for artistic and technical merit this set would easily be a 10/10. Yes, it really is that good.

Dan Morgan